Yet another young starlet felled far too young: whether by heart disease, diabetes, Vicodin or an ominous British husband has yet to be determined. What Brittany Murphy's death stirs up, though, is an odd disquiet, a sense of unease, sadness, suspicion: the same kind of feelings we had when we heard that River Phoenix had gone, Heath Ledger, DJ AM. If Brittany's autopsy does reveal that her death was due to substance abuse, she joins an increasing line of the beautiful and the young who died unintentionally at their own hands, while us rabid culture-consumers separated from their lives merely by a glossy weekly shake our heads and tut in disgust. These people had everything, and they threw it all away because of their dependence on illegal drugs or legally prescribed pharmaceuticals.
It seems incomprehensible to most of us that the young, the talented and the beautiful could be so stupid. But then, most of us don't have a comprehensive grasp of what comprises addiction and a dangerous misuse of substances. I stopped drinking in February of this year to almost universal cries of "What for? You're not an alcoholic! You're just someone who abuses alcohol!." And cocaine. And ecstasy. And psychedelics. And legally prescribed drugs. But I didn't consider myself an addict or an alcoholic because I didn't have a physical dependency on drugs and alcohol, and I didn't use every day. Oh, and I never used heroin or crack, and that's the bad stuff, right?
I could go weeks without drinking, and I rarely actively sought out drugs. However, if I drank and there happened to be drugs in the vicinity, drugs of any kind, I would find them, and I would consume them. In vast quantities. I couldn't say no. Because I didn't have a daily habit it didn't seem -- to me -- to be a problem. I only realized I had a problem when I tried to stop completely, and I couldn't. I only realized I had a problem when I started dating a guy with a long history of substance abuse, and I recognized myself in him. When I drove from Culver City to West Hollywood on the wrong side of the road one night because I was drunk. When I turned up to a meeting with a director who wanted to option my book, and slobbered my way into breakfast at The Ivy after a night of coke and tequila. When I attended an audition out of my head on ecstasy, champagne and coke, having not slept for 48 hours.
Oh, the list goes on.
It's easy for those of us who have stopped the abuse -- or temporarily postponed, I should probably say, not really knowing what the future may hold should I ever fall off the wagon -- to point fingers at others' 'recreational' use and scream "Addict!" or "Alcoholic!" Indeed, it seems to be a veritable pastime amongst some of my AA contemporaries. But since getting sober, I've come to a greater understanding of the ease and the extent to which substance abuse of any and every kind is acceptable in today's society, rendering recognition that one has a problem really goddamn difficult.
In Britain, where I was born and lived until I was 21, binge drinking has, in the last decade, come to be recognized as a huge problem in society. I grew up in a house where alcohol was drunk everyday, and yet my parents aren't alcoholics. I started drinking in bars aged 15 and that was the norm. In college we drank until we blacked out, we drank until we were face down in the gutter in a pool of our own excretions, we drank as much as possible for as little as possible -- and it was just "being young." It was just "our culture". I go back to Britain now and after years in the US, it's a completely alien culture. Britain has bred a nation of alcoholics, and I daresay the same journalists shrieking about how shocking it is, are doing so with a large glass of their daily Pinot Noir sitting next to the laptop, congratulating themselves that their daily tipple is 'under control' -- even if it does take them over the weekly units of alcohol that doctors recommend.
In the US I know few people who haven't used their Vicodin, their Oxycontin, their Ritalin or Adderall for purposes other than what they're prescribed for. It's easy to get a doc to prescribe this shit, and even easier to swallow a Vicodin after a stressful day at work. My sister called me in great excitement the other day because she'd discovered this amazing stuff called Ambien which a college friend had given her. It made her 'sleep really well' and gave her 'fucked-up dreams'. She had no idea the stuff she'd taken all week was addictive -- dangerously so.
My point is that recreational 'use' of substances is so widely accepted that it seamlessly slides into abuse without much effort or recognition, and while the nuclear fall-out seems apparent in the deaths of those who adorn the pages of Us Weekly, it's accepted and acceptable at all levels of society, and isn't confined to the talented, the beautiful and the young. By highlighting these tragic deaths as somehow related to fame, to celebrity exposure, to the effects of Hollywood and the movie industry, we don't take into account the fact that substance abuse is shockingly common in the majority of American and British households today. All of us sitting at home having a few pills with a glass of wine now and then, imagining that Brittany and Heath and DJ AM were somehow 'different' and 'special', are compounding the problem of ignorance.
The month before I quit drinking, I remember reading yet another story about Lindsey Lohan falling out of a nightclub, of Amy Winehouse pictured with white junk up her nose, of someone else getting drunk at an airport, assaulting the paparazzi. Rehabs and detoxes and twelve step programs seemed to be for these people: people with serious issues and money to burn and a self-loathing which couldn't be assuaged by fame or Vogue covers or billion-dollar movies. They were in the fishbowl, swimming around, and we were standing outside clutching Star magazine, hurling the fish flakes of fame into dark and murky water, watching them all go wild for it. I thought I was someone who partied on a lesser scale than the people I read about. Without the paps or the tabloids to capture it, my transgressions seemed inconsequential: therefore death and catastrophe would evade me.
I stopped abusing alcohol and drugs before it ever got too bad. If I ever start again it will be because I have an irresistible and distorted urge to enjoy illicit substances 'recreationally,' 'without harm' -- not like all these fucked-up Hollywood stars.
The sad thing is River, Heath, DJ AM and Brittany probably thought the same.